Israeli Life: New Feet for Old Steps
Every other Friday afternoon, a group of musicians—a clarinetist, trombonist, bass player and drummer—blasts away on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.
The group, most often Eli and the Chocolate Factory or Sidewalk Bunch, play Big Band favorites from Duke Ellington to Benny Goodman, and a crowd gathers around. Mothers with little children stop to watch as men and women begin dancing. The couples kick up their heels, jump and twirl their partners as they dance in a row down the elegant thoroughfare.
“Israelis are into the dance trends enjoyed all over the world: salsa, the tango, Latin dancing and hip-hop,” says Ron Dobrovinsky, organizational director of the Holy Lindy Land School of Vintage Dance. “Now, the newest guy on the street is swing dancing, which has been having a [global] revival since the ’80s.”
Since 2007, swing or vintage dancing—general terms for a number of dances that originated in the early-20th century, America’s jazz era—has attracted a small but growing group of fans in Israel. Swing, which includes dances like the Lindy Hop, the Charleston and West Coast Blues, made its way to Tel Aviv mainly through two dance schools: Holy Lindy Land located in the Tel Aviv Cultural Center on Heftman Street and Dance Tel Aviv on Dizengoff Street. Holy Lindy Land specializes in swing dances, such as the Lindy Hop—the most popular of the swing dances—Blues, Balboa and the Charleston, while Dance Tel Aviv teaches everything from salsa, tango and Latin to vintage.
“It is like oxygen,” says Carol Emold, an American ola who attends Dance Tel Aviv. “I started coming once a week, and now I am here four days a week. There is a warm, open feeling, and many of us are hooked. Israelis love to dance, to have a good time. They work hard and socialize hard.”
Mirika Brezis, a graduate student in immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, frequents both schools to learn new steps and routines. She also attends the schools’ weekly parties, where, according to Brezis, “one can just let go and enjoy until the wee hours of the morning. It is like building a new language and a great way of meeting new people…. We also feel you have to get into the culture of the time, and [there have been] ‘Paris in the Twenties’ nights, where women would get dressed up in short, slinky dresses, long pearls, feathers and furs and the men come with bow ties. In this spirit, vintage shops [with clothes from the ’20s] have also sprung up.”
Dobrovinsky directs Holy Lindy Land. His wife, Sharon Guzman, teaches at the school. Guzman, graceful and with long hair, came to dance while studying the saxophone and listening to recordings of the Big Band greats.
Dobrovinsky has been instrumental in bringing the I Charleston the World project—video shorts of people dancing the Charleston in cities around the globe—to Tel Aviv. I Charleston Tel Aviv depicts swing dancers on the seashore, in front of the Tel Aviv Museum and on the plaza of Habima Theater. The Tel Aviv short is available on the project’s Web site, www.icharlestontheworld.com. Dobrovinsky is working on setting an I Charleston short in Jerusalem.
Rena Scharf Khayat heads dance Tel Aviv with her husband, Ronen Khayat. Born in Columbus, Ohio, she made aliya with her family when she was 11. “I always loved dancing and met my husband when we were both instructors at an Arthur Murray studio in Ramat Sharon,” says Khayat, who, with Ronen, juggles a dance career with caring for their two children. “In 2000, we went to New York to study ballroom dancing as well as salsa and tango at DanceSport, New York City’s largest dance studio.
“Ronen,” she continues, “got involved with Latin dance, rumba and samba, but I fell in love with the Lindy Hop. [Swing] fits in wonderfully with Tel Aviv, allows for improvisation, letting go, even being silly. You do not have to be cool to dance it. We have some wonderfully intelligent computer people who have become swing geeks…. One tech expert who was shy and awkward began to let go through the Lindy Hop, and soon found that the women were lining up to dance with him.”
At an intermediate Monday-night Lindy Hop class at Dance Tel Aviv, participants—more men than women—were learning new dance steps. Most were in jeans and polo shirts, and the vibe was relaxed as the class listened to the instructors. One man, in the spirit of the jazz age, wore a bow tie and jacket.
Two instructors demonstrated a move, calling out, “five, six, seven, eight. Step. Turn,” before encouraging the whole class to try it. Participants laughed as they attempted the new step, learning to coordinate their minds with their bodies.
“It is a dialogue of energy between two people,” says Brezis.
“In our contemporary world where contact is made through texting, e-mail and computers,” explains Khayat, “dance brings people back to human contact. It preserves human contact.”
Swing began in America’s south as a black parody of ballroom dancing, created in the shacks in cotton fields at the beginning of the 20th century. “But…there was always a play of tension and release as the leader swung the partner out,” explains Dobrovinsky. “There was also a lot of fun and humor in it as well as great acrobatics.”
Later, the dance moved from the cotton fields to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, and then to the rest of America. “Swing music brought Jews and blacks together in the ’20s and ’30s,” says Guzman. “Benny Goodman, born Benjamin David Goodman, was one of the first to integrate white and black jazz players in his Big Band. And everyone danced swing together at the Savoy, where the best bands played.”
Interest in swing declined in the 1960s with the rising popularity of rock ’n’ roll. However, two decades later, a new generation of enthusiasts around the globe, including in Stockholm, New York and parts of the United Kingdom, started looking at swing—and at the Lindy Hop in particular—for inspiration. A Lindy Hop Camp opened in Sweden and became a center of the revival; the 1990s saw increased interest in the United States.
Dance instructor Shirley Osher is credited with bringing swing to Israel in 2007. An Israeli who had attended high school in the United States, Osher and fellow dance enthusiast Michelle Tadmor began giving free swing lessons in Tadmor’s Tel Aviv home. “We learned swing as teenagers,” says Osher. “There was no swing here. I missed it so much.”
That year, Osher also helped form Holy Lindy Land. Today, she is a coowner and one of the instructors at the dance school. “At first I was pessimistic about [swing] catching on,” she recalls. “I knew that Israelis like new things, gadgets, high tech, and I thought that vintage dancing would not go. And some of the first students at Holy Lindy Land were children of Anglos who knew about it from home and knew jazz. But it went on to a higher level [and more people].”
Guzman feels that with all of swing’s energy and history of integrating into other cultures and world trends, the dance is tailor-made for Tel Aviv. “The Lindy Hop creates a meeting between Israelis who seek to be part of a community,” she says.
Dobrovinsky agrees that “community is very important in Israel. [But] partner dancing can be intimidating.”
Vintage dancing, which also has partners, is more approachable, says Guzman. “The dancers are people who like jazz music…and are usually in their twenties to thirties. They are university students and tech people and are seeking a free-spiritedness. There is a lot of room for free play, an ability to express the music.”
A Blues dancing class at Holy Lindy Land could have been taken from a book on psychology 101. Instructors noted the importance of dialogue between partners, the leader and the follower. “Listen for the reactions of the other,” a tall, lanky male dancer instructed, “one must always be aware of the other’s signals, the leader cannot swing his or her partner in or out without cooperation.”
“Different partners create different dances,” says Guzman.
“[Interest in swing dancing] does not mean that Israelis have given up their pioneering hora tradition,” notes Brezis. “Every Shabbat, a group goes down to the beach and dances the hora along the shoreline. Israelis continue to enjoy traditional Israeli dancing.”
At the Feelin’ Blues festival run by Holy Lindy Land—one of several annual swing festivals in Tel Aviv—dancers from all over the world converge to learn from master teachers. This year’s festival, which took place in January, combined lessons, parties and dance contests with participants from Germany, Ukraine and the United States.
“It is common for swing dancers to go to festivals all over the world. They are [part of] an international community, a new kind of tourism based on common interest,” says Brezis. “Unlike academia, where you can post a paper on the Internet, in dance you really have to meet.”
“The world is open,” says Vitallia Bushknka, a swing teacher from Kiev who attended the 2013 Feelin’ Blues festival. “I can go anyplace to dance with a person I’ve never met before. [And] now we are going to have a Lindy camp in May in Kiev that Israelis will attend.”
Eran Tobi, a software engineer by day and one of the founders of Holy Lindy Land, attends swing festivals three to four times a year.
Tobi, who managed the school until 2012, has been dancing for over 6 years and taught the Lindy Hop in Jerusalem with Sylvia Osher. “I have been to [festivals in] the Czech Republic, the United States,” says Tobi. “It is a great way to meet people.”